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Bringing 'boogeyman' Iran in from the cold


Canny politicians know it is impossible to please everyone all of the time. This must be clear to US President Barack Obama in the wake of the nuclear deal reached with Iran. Even as he heralded the accord as a harbinger of a 'more hopeful world', Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried it as a 'stunning historical mistake'.

Hands shaking above US and Iran flags

Democrats in the US Senate have since won an initial victory, defeating a Republican resolution to block the deal in Congress. However, highlighting the contentiousness of the agreement, Democrats have had to vote down another Republican push. Meanwhile, the Vatican has come out in support of the accord.

The nuclear deal is a result of 18 months of hard diplomatic negotiation, but for the naysayers it means that Iran is off the leash and set to run rampant. Netanyahu claims the deal allows Iran to pursue a program of 'aggression and terror'. He tweeted that Iran intends to take over the entire planet.

Such statements play to stereotypes of an irrational, expansionist Iran, but Canadian scholar Thomas Juneau argues Iran presents little conventional military threat. Its military hardware is outdated and its defence spending dwarfed by that of its neighbours Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, let alone the US.

It is notable that Netanyahu's apprehensions about the deal are not shared by all Jews. In August, a group of 340 US-based rabbis wrote to Congress pressing lawmakers to endorse the deal.

Meanwhile, members of America's military establishment, who might be expected to adopt a hawkish stance, have also come out in support of the agreement. A group of retired generals published an open letter highlighting the necessity of giving 'the diplomatic path a chance'. Leading American scientists have backed the deal, too.

The agreement doesn't magically make everything alright between Iran, its neighbours and the US, and it doesn't instantly solve Iran's internal ills. But it has undoubtedly shifted dynamics in the Middle East. For the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu the change is for the worse. Others see things differently.

Notably, the nuclear accord is the first example in a many a long year where an apparently intractable problem in the Middle East has been solved through discussion rather than degenerating into conflict.

Kayhan Barzegar, from SOAS in London, sees this as a harbinger of a more cooperative era in the region, so that 'collective action ... will be strengthened'. He foretells a decrease in the 'existing mutual sense of threat' between the US and Iran.

Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani similarly sees the nuclear deal as a step towards 'better understanding' and cooperation on regional and international issues. Australian academic Naser Ghobadzadeh argues that Iran can now transform to become a stabilising influence.

Journalist and academic Stephen Kinzer has long suggested America should look upon Iran as an ally, not an enemy. Distrust of Iran largely stems from its defiant posture since the Islamic revolution of 1979. The hostage crisis at the US embassy, 'death to America' chants and threats against Israel all contributed to a menacing, anti-Western image.

But among Iran's burgeoning younger generation revolutionary fervour cuts little ice. Iranian professor Sadegh Zibakalam argues that anti-Americanism, for decades a prop for the regime, is a spent force.

In fact, the Iranian political arena has long been a battle ground between reformists intent on freeing up the system and opening to the West and hardliners determined to uphold the ideals of the revolution. At present the pendulum has swung to the advantage of reformists and moderates.

President Hassan Rouhani, in contrast to the inflammatory rhetoric of his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, maintains an even-handed position on many domestic and international issues. Rouhani was voted into the presidential palace in 2013 pledging to address economic ills. He has made a concerted effort to dispel Iran's image as a regional bogeyman and portray it as 'open for business'.

Already there are signs of rapprochement. In a strategic shift, Iran appears ready to join an alliance against ISIS.

Australia has a strong relationship with Iran. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's recent visit to Tehran was the first by an Australian MP in over a decade. She has suggested closer cooperation is likely with Iran on initiatives in Syria. Nonetheless within Iran a tug-of-war continues as to whether to mend ties with the US. In such circumstances, Australia can play a valuable role as a trusted intermediary.

Zibakalam argues that the nuclear deal will ultimately strengthen the position of reformists within the Iranian parliament and will improve the economic lot of ordinary Iranians. In next year's parliamentary elections, a less isolated and more prosperous Iran is more likely to vote into power moderates who seek to engage more amicably with the outside world — and that has to be a good thing.

William Gourlay headshotWilliam Gourlay's PhD research at Monash University focuses on the Kurdish issue in Turkey. He is also a researcher in Iranian foreign policy at Deakin University.

Image: Shutterstock


Topic tags: William Gourlay, Iran, Barack Obama, America, nuclear arms, Benjamin Netanyahu



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Existing comments

The history of Iran is a long and complex one. Iranians have had far more success in the arenas of poetry, arts and crafts, religion and mythology than in those of science and social institutions. Conflict over nuclear programs has been ongoing between Iran and US and European Union. It's in Australia's interests to foster a better relationship with this interesting country.

Pam | 22 September 2015  

This is an excellent article and I have few quarrels with it. My concern is where Western forces are fighting technically against Isis/Daesh in the company of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards; Hezbollah; various other Shi'ite militia and the Iraqi and Syrian Armies. This action, currently restricted to bombing and the provision of advisers and weapons, will be seen by many Sunnis in a very polarised Middle East as siding with the Shia against them. Massacres are being carried out by both sides in Iraq and Syria. The fighting and its effects: indiscriminate killing; wholesale destruction and mass displacement with the consequent torrent of refugees will continue for years. If this is part of rapprochement with Iran we should think very, very carefully. A better relationship with Iran should not endanger our friendship with Sunni states.

Edward Fido | 23 September 2015  

The above comments both raise very good points. As to any alliance with Iran against Daesh, this has to be done extremely judiciously (if such a thing is possible!) It appears that President Rouhani is approaching Sunni states much more diplomatically than his predecessor. I'd wager that the majority of Iranians want better relations with the outside world and don't give two hoots about Shia hegemony etc. We can hope that with time relations will thaw. It's also worth remembering that Sunni-Shia enmity is not as stark or as intractable as commonly stated. For example, Saudi Arabia and Iran were effectively allied before 1979. Rhetoric and perceived threats have heightened tensions between Shia and Sunni, but if diplomacy is again in the ascendant, then there may be pathways to defusing tensions. We can but hope!

William Gourlay | 24 September 2015  

The Modern History of Sunni/Shia Relations has generated several books and articles. Suffice to say there are, sadly, some very malicious and influential players on both sides. That is one reason I think the West needs, as much as possible, to avoid being seen as taking a partisan role in this ancient conflict. Middle Eastern Politics is a real witch's brew and anyone who partakes in it needs to be aware of its extreme toxicity.

Edward Fido | 24 September 2015  

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